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By Deepthi Bharadwaj

As the four young boys ambled past me, I stole a curious look at the gunny bags they carried. Innocuous looking, but bearing ominous tell-tale splashes of red. I casually stopped and asked what the bags contained. Not shy of the stranger, the teenaged boy drew open the cover with visible pride – to show me his successful bounty of wild bird catch for the day. Shocked though I was; my field work in the wetlands of Andhra Pradesh made me realise how widespread wildfowl hunting in India is. It is not uncommon to see local people hunt common birds like lesser whistling teals, egrets and swamp hens in droves, sometimes taking back as many as a dozen birds at a time. The recent massacre of various resident and migratory water-birds in Puducherry by a group of Narikoravas is a gory reminder that hunting, albeit illegal, remains a persistent threat to Indian wildlife.

A meal of two teals

While working on a project on wetland birds in Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, I witnessed first-hand the rampant killing of common species like water fowl. Most water-bird species fall under Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and their killing and trade is strictly prohibited. Hunting entails imprisonment or fine or both. These birds not only include common birds like egrets, black ibis and spot-billed ducks but also many migratory ducks and species like the spot-billed pelican, painted stork, white ibis and greater adjutant stork which are classified as ‘near threatened’ or ‘endangered’ as per the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.

Yet, few cases of wildfowl hunting are booked. Since it is not perceived by many, including the Forest Department, as a crime of serious nature, offences are severely under-reported. The indifference of the Forest Department perhaps explains the mismatch between scale of hunting and cases booked. A quick conversation with people living around the lake revealed more than what was visible to the eye. Not shy about talking about hunting, many villagers confessed to have eaten meat of wild birds many a time. I learnt from them that poisoning and use of hand-made guns are the two most common ways of hunting. Festivals often mark an increase in hunting. “Of the all the birds here, meat of lesser whistling teal is very tasty,” said Kumara who works in an adjoining paddy field and had to be coaxed into sharing his tales. What was shocking, however, was that inspite of being very well aware of the law, they had no qualms about breaking the law to satisfy their gustatory fancies!

Tackling this pervasive problem is admittedly a challenge to the Forest Department that is already grappling with problems of poaching of more charismatic wildlife. Poaching of many animals like tiger, elephant, bears, otters, and civets often involves organised crime involving a network of individuals and organisations, with profits running into lakhs of rupees – an international trade second only to narcotics. On the other hand, water birds are predominantly killed for their meat, for domestic consumption and for sale in local markets. It usually involves locals from a nearby village. Often, a willing customer is the cause. Unlike parts of North-East India, where game meat is an important source of protein for people living on poor agricultural soils, most people in South India hunt waterbirds inspite of having access to other sources of nutrition. Also, many admitted that they preferred wildfowl to domestic chicken simply because it was tastier. Often priced at the same rate or marginally more than poultry, the meat is quite affordable, making it easy to find customers.

Hunting of birds has myriad consequences on the ecology and population dynamics of birds. Hunting forces birds to use lower quality habitats, increases the time spent in trying to escape thereby effecting their feeding, decreases their body fat reserves, and alters their daily routines. Migratory birds might arrive at their breeding grounds with decreased body conditions thus affecting their breeding success. Studies from the West show that mortality and disturbance severely affect the population dynamics of the species, even altering their geographical distribution.

Tackling the problem

Birds use a network of wetlands depending on the food availability, disturbance and season. Declaring one protected area in a landscape will not solve the problem. Apart from a few protected bird sanctuaries and Ramsar sites, most wetlands fall in the non-protected areas, thus diluting the protection given to the creatures inhabiting them. It is mandatory to have a no-hunting network to facilitate usage and movement among these wetlands. In addition to strict enforcement by the Forest Department, with zero tolerance of transgressions, this will also involve networking with locals through outreach and education programmes.

For long-term success, it is crucial to make local people understand the need for conservation and effect a change in their attitudes.

The effectiveness of the Forest Department in curtailing waterfowl hunting also weakens because of the sheer number and distribution of wetlands in the country. Wetlands are also much contested spaces. Unlike forests, which fall under the purview of a single authority (the Forest Department), various government departments like Fisheries, Irrigation and Forest Departments have a say in the management of waterbodies, thus complicating enforcement. Instead of turning a blind eye to the crimes as in the case of  Puducherry killings, the least the Forest Department could do is to encourage citizens to report such crimes and act upon them immediately and efficiently.

Inspite of having provisions in the law to protect these birds, hundreds of wetlands may lose their winged inhabitants to local hunting. It is not just the duty of the Forest Department to take action against the offenders but also, as citizens, it is our duty to duly report such incidents to the nearest concerned authority. We should wake up before the “empty wetland” syndrome engulfs our neighbourhood lake; it is time for us to act and do our bit for these winged creatures.

This article appeared in the Deccan Herald on July 9th 2012.

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